The Improbable Yet Necessary Dialogue

The missing yet necessary role of intellectuals in ME and World Affairs

This is not simply an essay on intellectuals, their role and the dialogue that they need to champion, but an attempt by a young and aspiring ME “intellectual” to present his own personal views and his own personal critique of the way things are in the world today.


Beyond negotiations and dogmatization, there exists today a real need in the ME, with the diversity of its peoples and cultures, for a deep, realistic and comprehensive dialogue that can cut across existing stereotypes and illusions, although they may often be state-sponsored and correspond, in one way or another, to certain old cultural prejudices. In fact, it is this last remark that makes the proposed dialogue even more vital and necessary.

For what is the job of the intellectual if not to bring some much needed objectivity and sobriety to the analysis of fundamental political, socioeconomic and cultural issues?

Of course, one can easily bring up here the question of how objective and sober can the intellectuals really be when they themselves are caught up in the ongoing turmoil in the region, and when they themselves are often found lacking when it comes down to addressing the all too important issue of who “we” are and where “we” stand in the world today? Indeed, if the history of the 20th  Century proves anything it is that ME intellectuals have often been part and parcel of the various problems and dilemmas faced by its peoples, and as such, they have often contributed to making things even more complex and confusing rather than clear and manageable.

The inability of various ME intellectuals to conduct a calm and rational dialogue between themselves on the basis of mutual respect for each other’s fundamental rights turned them into mere toys and ideologues in the hands of power-mongering politicians, dynasts, clerics and army generals. As such, ME intellectuals proved often much more capable of stultifying the minds of their peoples, and leaders, rather than inspiring them into engagement in creative thoughts and acts that could perhaps enable that haggard part of the world to rise up to the level of the challenges it faces.

As such, one might be easily tempted to dismiss any potential positive role that the intellectuals can play in the present and future of the ME. This, however, could indeed prove a very serious mistake with consequences far more harmful than any failure on part of ME intellectuals so far. For ME intellectuals, despite all their failures and shortcomings, still have a major role to play in steering their societies and polities into the adoption of lasting and comprehensive solutions to existing problems, thus ushering in an era of lasting and durable peace and prosperity.

But, first, ME intellectuals, to be more specific, the older generations of ME intellectuals, have a long way to go yet in order to rehabilitate, reinvent and reeducate  themselves. They have to review all their erstwhile suppositions and tenets and indulge in sincere acts of self-criticism, a process without which no self-renewal is possible. They should be no sacred cows for them in this process, all ideas and beliefs should once again be laid out on the table for discussion, and some need to be crushed like the idols they have become.

But more importantly, the new and slowly-emerging generation of ME intellectuals, has to learn from the mistakes of the older generations and avoid their pitfalls. The most critical thing is for the new generations to be able to understand that the role of the intellectual in contemporary ME societies is to be a dissident in every sense of the word. Toning down one’s ideas and policing one’s self so as to avoid angering the political or clerical authorities, and to avoid rousing popular sentiments, is in itself the kind of concession that cannot be made under any circumstances, and especially, under these circumstances where the problems of the ME are clearly related to the established political, religious, economic and socio-cultural institutions.

Making this one concession, then, is, in effect, synonymous with giving up the entire struggle for the development and modernization of the ME.  Unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of concession that has, eventually, been made by the older generations of ME intellectuals, with few exceptions. I say eventually, because, one has to admit that the intellectuals did put up a fight, and that this concession was often made under duress. And though it is quite unlikely that the circumstances are going to be any different for the new generations of intellectuals, the task remains the same, and has become even more vital as the fate of the entire region, and the world, especially in the aftermath of September 11, is now, more than ever, subject to a kind of external dabbling that risks depriving the peoples of the ME, once again, of control over their own lives for decades, if not centuries, to come.

So what is this major role that ME intellectuals have to play?

What is this dialogue they have to engage in. And how, and this is quite important indeed, could this dialogue be exported to the other strata in the society without diluting its main ideas?

The dialogue, one has to insist, needs to be multilayered, that is, it needs to take place at different levels, more or less, simultaneously.

It has, first, to be a dialogue with the Self. No isms should be involved here anymore, we had enough of them, we should be able to see by now that the isms have always been part of the problem for us and that they, in their very nature, make the whole idea of dialogue impossible. An intellectual always needs to review his basic suppositions and his stands and he should have the courage to accept correction, public or private, and to change his views.

Second, the dialogue should be socially internal and not only psychologically internal. It should be a dialogue with the Other in one’s society, aimed not at nullifying the difference, but at reaching common grounds and a joint understanding on various critical issues despite the differences that exist. This dialogue is naturally bound to involve a review of the society’s social and religious traditions, its ancient and modern history, and various old and new political and economic theories, hence its complicated and comprehensive nature, and hence the need for patience therein, and for moderating short-term expectations.

One of the most important points relating to social dialogue is the need for avoiding past-orientation, and for focusing on the present and the future. Analyzing history is not synonymous with idealizing it or getting caught up in it, nor should it lead to that. One of our main problems in the region has been our inability to make this necessary, though admittedly difficult, psychological break with the past, be it ancient or recent. No one is demanding a cultural break here, this is a process that is simply happening on its own. Understanding this admittedly dangerous fact, dangerous in the sense that it has caused a sever identity crisis involving hundreds of millions of people, requires a certain amount of detachment so as to avoid dictating the results of the analysis.

Third, the Dialogue needs to be conducted with intellectuals from other ME, societies and/or polities. It has to have a regional element. It has to take the regional friends and foes into consideration, especially the foe, the enemy. The way the borders are drawn and resources distributed hereabouts makes it useless to exclude the “regional other” from the Dialogue. Internal peace, even in a social sense, cannot be achieved these days, without a regional settlement and a regional peace. Our identities are as much the product of regional developments as they are the products of internal social developments.

Fourth, the Dialogue needs to be conducted with intellectuals from around the world. This has become even more important in the aftermath of the September 11 Attack. Considering the important economic, political and technological developments that took place around the world with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, particularistic cultural and national identities became enmeshed more and more in the fabric of international developments. This fact challenges even the most basic and fundamental pillars of our self-awareness and our self-knowledge, and, consequently, all our related isms.

There is no more room, then, for isolationist thoughts and tendencies. A certain unitary reality has imposed itself upon us. We may not like it. We might choose to challenge certain aspects of it. But it cannot in itself be denied or rejected. Atavism is the reaction of the defeated, what is needed is “our” participation in the face of all challenges, obstacles, opposition and, more importantly, our own sense of apprehension.

The special case of Islamism in the aftermath of September 11

That Islamism has become part of the forces shaping the tumultuous scene in the contemporary ME is undeniable. That, as such, Islamism will become involved, and in a direct manner, in any intellectual challenge to the basics of Islamic heritage, is beyond all doubt. That such involvement will often be rejectionist and atavistic, not to mention, at occasions, violent, is only natural. But, for ME intellectuals, especially those of Islamic background, to become too daunted by the awesomeness of the task involved, or by fear that their contributions in this matter should be used as fodder in someone’s cannons aimed at the Arab and Muslim world and culture, is a development that can easily doom the Arab and Muslim peoples to a certain intellectual and spiritual death.

If the vestiges of Islamic Culture and Civilization have died, after a centuries-long period of agony, this matter is, in itself, not a sign of anything but of life and history taking their natural course. Every civilization and every culture are, in the final analysis, perishable, no matter how sacred they might seem to the minds of their creators and their followers. For no human institution is immortal. We haven’t yet become gods, and we may never be destined to become such. Ours, it seems, is a continuous struggle with our own failings. Those who seek refuge in the sacred, paradoxically enough, are usually the first to forget the meaning of this simple yet undeniable fact. As such, they are often found wanting when it comes down to giving practical solutions to the various challenges faced by their societies and peoples. Which is why they, eventually, seek refuge in violence.

If the Saudi, Iranian, and Sudanese national experiences, over the last few decades, have taught us anything is that there is no Islamic answer to modernity, it being an institution that is, in its nature, not susceptible to religious challenges. The only option modernity leaves at this stage is participation, a matter that can take place in two ways: willing or unwilling. Modernity either imposes itself on peoples and societies, consequently generating a deep sense of alienation vis-à-vis traditional culture and the trappings of the modern world, or it is freely embraced with all its failings. This is true even in the case of “developed societies.”

Was modernism willingly embraced there, or did people simply stumble upon it and were caught up in its trappings? This is a legitimate question to pause here. If one should read the biographies and autobiographies of the various intellectuals, scientists, politicians and artists who were in effect the creators and architects of modernity, one can easily see that most of them never had an idea of the sort of impact their contributions will make upon people’s lives. They were often as surprised as everyone else with the changes their ideas wrought upon the world, and many of them were often dismayed. This was not what they wanted, they would say.

The dynamics of modernity, then, are not controlled even by its creators. Nor will they be controlled by its “victims.” The best the victims can hope for here is to put an end to their status as victims and become creators in their own right and take part in that active process of shaping modernity and not let themselves only be shaped by it.

The fundamentalist forces sweeping across the world today, be they Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, cultic (such as the Asahi Movement, and Aum Shinrikyo), etc. represent a reaction to modernity, not an answer nor a rival to it. And if fundamentalist forces cannot seriously rival modernity, what sort of hope does terrorism have in this regard? None, I say. Terrorists might be able, one day, to simultaneously nuke the White House, the Kremlin, and the headquarters of the UN, the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF etc, not to mention, downtown New York, London and Paris, but they will still fail in destroying modernity. Modernity and its institutions are above all ideas, if not downright ideals, that burn, one way or another, in the heads and souls of most people on earth, they are not physical structures that can be simply destroyed.

The only impact contemporary acts of terror can have upon these ideas/ideals is to make them burn even brighter. Terrorism, and the turmoil that fundamentalist forces can often bring, might succeed in isolating a certain part of the world from the rest of the world, but only to the detriment of that part,  as we have seen in places such as Afghanistan. No viable alternatives to modernity are going to emerge in these desolate parts. Even, when there is peace, social, military, and political, as is the case in Saudi Arabia for instance, or as has been the case in Iran for the last decade or so, fundamentalism and Islamism have failed to provide alternatives. People remain too caught up in the trappings of modernity, and despite their seemingly rigid political, economic, and socio-cultural systems, underneath it all, there burns a deep desire for everything modern.

If there remains some residual yet strong opposition in some quarters to certain modernist values, such a women’s rights and freedom of conscience and of expression, this is only a sign of how deep an inroad modernity has made in these societies. For even in modern western societies, these issues were some of the last challenges to be confronted. Traditional societies, especially those in the ME, have long, in fact, become battlefields between traditional and modern values, the current rise of fundamentalism in these societies can be traced directly to the failure of the various nationalist movements in bringing about a suitable end to the conflict, and to the persistence of outside influences and dabbling, a matter that has long become unavoidable.

For modernity is the product of a world becoming increasing smaller and continuingly disillusioned. Fundamentalism and Islamism are, indeed, some of the world’s last isms that will in due course of time die. In this dying process, the intellectuals’ main task is not simply to alleviate the spiritual and mental suffering of the people involved, though, this could indeed be considered as one of their tasks. But, the main task is to explain the nature and showcase the benefits of modernity, on the one hand, and to take active part in its making, on the other, through involvement in the ongoing global dialogue on the future of humanity, and through involvement in various scientific, technological and intellectual innovations.

Politicians and other social figures also have their important role to play in this matter. The transition process into modernity will be tremendously facilitated when the people involved feel that their respected social, political and intellectual figures are taking an active part in shaping the “New World Order.” A sense of empowerment is, indeed, vital for making the transition into modernity possible. As long as this element of empowerment remains missing, the conflict between traditional and modern values will continue to rage and to shape the lives of the peoples in the ME and the rest of the world, and so will fundamentalism with its different aspects and its extreme manifestation that is terrorism.

The Role of Globalization

Another major obstacle facing the process of global dialogue is the process of globalization itself, which often gets confused these days, thanks to the efforts of its ideologists and apologists, with modernity. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Globalization, to put it bluntly, is colonialism reinvented and reintroduced into the world, all for the benefit of a tiny minority, which admittedly is not all western, but whose interest in the humanitarian values it pretends to believe in and to be interested in disseminating around the world, remains dubious to say the least.

Modernity, on the other hand, is a set of values that, for all their deficiencies, are indeed open for all to criticize, analyze, modify and embrace. There is room for dialogue in modernity. No such “luxury” is conceivable with globalization. Globalization is a process where a self-selected elite are attempting to impose their will and vision upon the rest of the world. It is somebody’s pet project, with political, economic and military implications, including the division of certain countries and redrawing of maps in certain parts of the world, regardless of the aspirations of its peoples. Modernity, on the other hand, is a natural outcome of civilizational and cultural development. If anything, it’s history’s current pet project. There is no manifest destiny involved here, nor pretense thereof, there is only life that needs to be lived and choices that need to be made.

Looking at things from this perspective, even modern western societies can often be judged as “pre-modern.” That is, they have not sufficiently yet absorbed and assimilated the values of modernity. Western thinkers, scientists and philosophers, might have been heavily involved in working out these values over the last few centuries, but, and as we all should know, producing values and assimilating them are two different things, and success on the one front does not necessarily entail success on the other.

Western societies and polities, for instance, have been championing the cause of freedom around the world for centuries now: freedom and colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries and before, freedom and globalization in the 21st Century.

If the main task of ME intellectuals is to engage in active criticism of their own traditions and isms, we have to stress that the main task of western intellectuals these days is to expose over and over and over again, the fraud that is happening whenever modernity and globalization are said to be one and the same. Otherwise, they are betraying their societies, the values of modernity itself, and, in the process, the very dialogue they are proposing to their colleagues around the world.

The impunity of some of our current masters and world leaders is such that they conspire against “us,” the peoples of the world, openly these days. Just consider how they discuss the possible division of Iraq, not to mention the resources of this planet, and how they threaten to use nuclear force against their foes, simply as deterrence and not in response to any hypothetical first strike. They do so, because they think they can get away with it, because we let our guards down and are failing to hold them accountable, because we have lulled them with our silence into a state where they think they’re so powerful and we so powerless, so unable to challenge and defeat their schemes. Well, I beg to differ and dare to oppose.


In a world growing increasingly mad, mainly due to the failure of its peoples, especially its political and social leaders, and more importantly its intellectuals, to reflect in their behavior the very principles they pretend to uphold, in a world where the main superpower is getting increasingly drunk with hubris and too much power, and has usurped to itself the power of God, and hence inspired others to usurp the powers of Satan, for one never fails to beckon the other, in a such world, we always find ourselves caught between the prophets of doom and the preachers of salvation.

Well, I hate both. I think a “real” intellectual should never be completely sure of either alternative. The world is indeed open for both possibilities, which is why we need to work extremely hard to make sure that the possibility to be fulfilled is the one that gives life a chance to prosper and grow more equitable and fair. The work of the intellectual, in such times as these at least, is not that of a prophet nor a doomsayer, it is that of a soberer, which means that sometimes he has to shock, and others he has to soothe. In all cases, he has to retain his courage and carry his shroud and cross along for the ride. After all, he will be championing an improbable yet necessary dialogue, a dialogue with himself, and with his social, regional and global “other.” A dialogue that can prove fruitful not only through the persuasive powers of its ideas, but also through the example set by, and the bravery and persistence of the intellectuals involved.

The new generation of intellectuals in the ME and abroad have quite an adventure ahead of them, then, though they are unlikely to be considered heroes in their own time. Still, they could very well be the heroes of the future. And yes, the world still needs heroes. Not saviors, heroes. The intellectual as a hero, this is not an innovative concept by all means, but one whose time has come, once again.

A paper delivered as part of the Dialogue Between Civilizations Conference organized by the University of Southern Denmark in Odense on Augsut 31 – September 1, 2002